A venerable relic of the era when outings to cemeteries were the Sunday rage, Niederstein’s Restaurant stood on Metropolitan Avenue (formerly the Williamsburg and Jamaica Turnpike) from the early 1850s to 2005.
At first a roadhouse on the Brooklyn & Jamaica Turnpike just east of 69th Street, it later served travelers journeying to nearby Lutheran Cemetery. Over the years its interior and exterior were altered to such a degree that it was deemed unworthy of protection by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, and in 2005 it was razed and replaced with an Arby’s Roast Beef fast food palace, which has a tacky boulder decoration marking where the old place once stood. Across the street, on Niederstein’s parking lot a new boxy building arises, advertising a prominent air conditioner manufacturer. Oddly, the parking lot sign stayed resolutely in place throughout construction.
The roadhouse was constructed by Henry Schumacher in the early 1850s and was purchased by German immigrant John Niederstein in 1888. Niederstein, a cook by trade, had made money operating the Yorkville Assembly Rooms on 2nd Avenue in that Manhattan German stronghold after his arrival in the 1860s.
Niederstein greatly expanded Schumacher’s roadhouse in response to the popularity of Sunday outings in the Queens cemetery belt, adding two wings on each side and eventually building 32 rooms. Besides cemetery outings, holidays became a great source of business, with Decoration (Memorial) Day the most popular one, followed by Mother’s Day and June 15th, which was in the early 20th Century celebrated as Slocum Memorial Day; the General Slocum steamship had burned in the East River on June 15th, 1904, killing over a thousand day trippers mostly from the lower East Side and decimating what was then called kleindeutschland – “Little Germany.”
Niederstein’s had changed ownership only a few times in its history; from 1969 to its demise in 2005 it was owned by Reiner and Horst Herink.
In the modern era, the old fashioned way of doing things gave way to modern improvements. For example, Niederstein’s collection of heavy wooden ceiling fans were connected with a belt to a single long axle running to the dining room from the bar — powered, according to legend, by a man on a bicycle in the basement. Thankfully, Willis Carrier’s creation, air conditioning, gave the man on the bike something else to do.
In Niederstein’s heyday the restaurant served over 130,000 dinners per year, which over the last 20 years of operation came to 330,000 pounds of sauerbraten along with 330 gallons of gravy, as well as 200,000 pounds of pork loin.
Patronage steeply declined in the late 1990s and early 2000s and finally, ownership decided to close Niederstein’s and sell the property; an Arby’s franchisee purchased the property for $1.6M in late 2004, the restaurant closed in February 2005 and it was razed several weeks later.
Whoops, Von Westernhagen’s closed in 2010.